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Airlines, flight school lure pilots with free training

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By Reuters

Singapore – In 2014, Danny Perna found himself caught up in the global shortage of pilots that has vexed airlines from China to the United States.

For the first time in 15 years, the founder of Epic Flight Academy in Florida couldn’t find enough trained US pilots to be flight instructors at his school.

Offering sign-on bonuses of up to $10,000 did not help, he said. Eventually they decided to advertise a sponsorship program to partially fund pilot cadets’ training.

“Basically once we started to fund training then it satisfied the pilot shortage,” he told Reuters by phone from Florida. Newly trained US pilots are usually required to teach at flight schools to gain the hours needed to join an airline.

“So in our opinion it’s not a pilot shortage, it’s a funding or finance shortage, the inability for young people to be able to afford training.”

His realization is hitting other airlines and flight schools too, as growing competition across the world for a shrinking pool of trained pilots pushes up salaries and prevents carriers from operating at full capacity.

Pilots say the burden on cadets to pay for their flight training, which can cost more than $70,000, has been a key reason why enrolment has plummeted at flight schools, especially in places like the US and Australia. Many banks suspended loans for flight training after the 2008 financial crisis.

Many experienced pilots were also laid off at the time, which analysts said concealed how few new student pilots there were.

“Trainees now have to consider where the cash will come from, be it huge bank loans or turning to the ‘bank of mum and dad,'” said Brian Strutton, general secretary of British Airline Pilots Association, which has expressed concerns that the profession was becoming “inaccessible.”

In June, training company CAE, Inc  forecast that the global commercial aviation industry would need an additional 255,000 pilots by 2027 to sustain rapid growth, but said that more than half of the necessary pilots have not yet begun training.

“Many countries are in the same state (as the United States). They are having shortages in their military and in their commercial environment,” said Vietnam Airlines JSC’s chief executive, Duong Tri Thanh.

“The problem we see, and are spending investment on, is how you reduce the cost or the time of getting somebody qualified into a jet,” he added.

Carriers such as Air France have in recent months announced plans to launch so-called “ab initio” programs, in which airlines pay for training pilots, then hire them.

In October, Cebu Pacific said it would sponsor 240 aspiring aviators through a program through in which pilots would pay for their training later through salary deductions.

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